Like them or not, new laws provide framework for dispensaries, extracts 

We know where marijuana law and access in Michigan is going in the short term. Two recent legal developments have laid it out.

The first development is that there will be no vote on legalizing recreational use of marijuana on this year's ballot. It's been lingering on life support as MI Legalize went through various legal challenges and appeals in the state courts to get the signatures on their petitions counted. But it died when the state Supreme Court refused the case. There is still a federal challenge to the state decision, but even if there were a win down the road on that front, it wouldn't happen in time for a vote this year. A federal judge denied a motion to stop the printing of ballots for this year's election.

Not that MI Legalize has given up the effort. The organization is pursuing a federal appeal. At the same time the group is reorganizing — with lessons learned — for an attempt to get on the ballot for 2018, a gubernatorial election year. Presidential elections bring out more voters, which is what MI Legalize was hoping for, but apparently they don't want to wait four years before calling the question again. If public opinion trends keep moving in the direction they have been, it's a question of when, not if, marijuana will be legalized.

The second development has a more immediate impact for the 212,928 medical marijuana patients registered in the state. Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Acts 281-283 last week, setting up the system for medical marijuana sales in the state, and possibly giving us a preview of what a recreational sales system will look like down the line. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA) did not specifically account for marijuana dispensaries for distribution, and some counties enforced the catch-22 of "patients may have marijuana, but there's no place to buy it." Now there can be dispensaries, and it is up to local municipalities whether they want to allow them or not.

PA 281, the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, regulates the growth, processing, transport, sales, and taxation of medical marijuana. The law creates three levels for growing licenses: up to 500 plants; up to 1,000 plants; and up to 1,500 plants.

PA 282 changes the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act to allow for extracts, oils, and infused products. That was another testy point, because the MMMA specifically referred to the "dried leaves and flowers" of the marihuana plant, but not extracts made from them. State law enforcement was never comfortable with high potency substances made from marijuana extracts.

A seed-to-sale tracking system for medical marijuana — known as the Marihuana Tracking Act, or PA 283 — was tacked on later in the process with backing from business interests and law enforcement.

The laws take effect immediately, although in practical terms the only one that matters is PA 282, for patients who need oils and extracts. The practicalities of how the licensing is administered will be up to a new state-appointed board.

Getting the laws in place is an important point in a long and ongoing process. Whether they are good or not depends on who you talk to.

"When we first started approaching public officials and legislators, most of them didn't even want to talk to us about medical marijuana," says Robin Schneider of the National Patients Rights Association. "Many didn't believe there was medicinal benefit at all. We spent years debating with law enforcement about regulations, the need for transporting security, and seed-to-sale tracking. The two opposite sides had to meet in the middle."

That was spoken like a veteran of political negotiating. Schneider has spent six years working in Lansing trying to get something like these laws passed and sees them as a good thing. She's seen the opposition up close and personal, and believes this is a major victory, particularly for patients who need extracts and oils.

The regulations do reflect something of a law enforcement approach when you look at the seed-to-sale tracking and secure transport provisions. This generates questions as to how the governor-appointed Marihuana Advisory Council will approach its duties. Will it take an oppositional or nurturing attitude to a new industry in the state?

"The bills were driven, written, and approved by the law enforcement community, which will not have the same interests in the success of the program as the dispensary people," says attorney Michael Komorn, president of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association. "This is a police oversight program that has nothing to do with the medical marijuana act. It's a license that is supervised by the law enforcement team akin to the liquor control system."

At the very least, the new laws add layers of bureaucracy to the distribution of medical marijuana, which was expected. It also regulates where some of the money in a lucrative new industry will go. Dr. Gary Wolfram, a Hillsdale College economist, has given a conservative estimate that the state will collect $63 million annually in fees and taxes, while generating about 10,000 jobs.

The money involved helps draw in those reluctant to engage with marijuana. With tight budgets and reluctance to raise taxes, this is an opportunity for state resources. It also draws in others who want to get a piece of that financial action. Will there be a level playing field for anyone to join in? Or will it be stacked toward those who are — for lack of a better reference — friends of the governor?

"I'm still skeptical of this legislature and their plans," says Jamie Lowell of the Third Coast Compassion Club in Ypsilanti, the first licensed dispensary in Michigan. "How will the state actually treat this process? I'm a little paranoid. I've seen enough shenanigans and tomfoolery to have legitimate questions."

Lowell is active with the MI Legalize group and is feeling the sting of the state legislature's action to block the legalization petitions, such as a law passed last spring that kept all the signatures collected from being counted.

Not everybody is holding hands and singing the praises of these laws. But they are adding some definition to contested provisions of the MMMA that have led to legal problems and even imprisonment for some. At least the question of whether dispensaries are legal in Michigan is settled. They are.

"I think it's a good thing anytime you get a little more regulation and a little more transparency," says Julius Dubose, founder of Dubs Apothecary, a self-described mobile facility that has had its wares at medical marijuana events in Detroit. Dubose wants to open a storefront facility soon. The new laws make that possibility much more clear.

"I'm open to any municipality that will allow it," Dubose says.

Michigan's new medical marijuana laws may not be the most enlightened, but they do provide more clarity for those who want to operate dispensaries and produce extracts. And for most, just knowing what the rules are will make a difference.

More by Larry Gabriel

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